Beyond Words:
A Speech’s Sound Can Inspire Music

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Composer Peter Ablinger is at work on a cycle of piano compositions tightly responsive to the recorded speeches of historic figures. The latest is a rant by Diamanda Galás. (Photos by David Plakke)

NEW YORK – The beat goes on … but with a German modernist sense of order.

One hallmark of the 1950s Beat Generation was word spinners like Jack Kerouac improvising for hours with the likes of composer David Amram on French horn – in a meeting of spoken word and jazz. Some 40 years later, starting in 1998, Austria-born but now Berlin-based composer Peter Ablinger (best known for electronic installations) began composing a projected cycle of 80 piano works using archival recordings of historic figures, from Ezra Pound to Nina Simone, alongside a pianistic response (as opposed to an accompaniment).

A less-obvious common ground between the Beat Generation practice and this experimental European composer was Steve Reich’s video opera The Cave, which had music tightly fashioned to the rhythms and inflections of pre-recorded speech. Unlike Reich, Ablinger embraces the fundamental atonality of speech in his music. It all made sense at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Jan. 28, when nine of Ablinger’s pieces – one of them brand new, most of them lasting five to seven minutes – were performed in a concert simply titled “Voices & Piano.”

Composer and pianist Eric Wubbels, at the keyboard, performs in sync with the recorded speeches.

In the Forum’s quirky sliver of a building on E. 52nd Street – it’s only 25 feet wide – the stage in the small, 90-seat theater had a large loudspeaker and a piano. Fellow composer Eric Wubbels (a radical minimalist) may have been an ideal pianist in what had to be a meeting of cutting-edge minds. As one might expect from an installation composer such as Ablinger, the music relied on nonfunctional harmony and, in some of the more complex chord structures, it had a passing resemblance to Olivier Messiaen in his best Visions of Amen mode.

The program’s final piece had Polish conceptual artist Roman Opałka (1931- 2001) counting numbers up around two million (he was trying to control time, and made it as far as five million) alongside piano writing that vaguely resembled some of the more spare moments of jazz master Bill Evans. But perhaps in a rebellion against the orderliness of number counting, Ablinger had 20 minutes of chords that projected no conventional pattern of musical thought.

The program’s other pieces didn’t do any one thing. Often, the music closely hugged the words, especially in the piece quoting Slovak poet Mila Haugová (b. 1942). Most often, the music started out close to the words but went its own way. Occasionally, the piano delivered an abstracted psychological portrait. The movement based around Pound (1885-1972) caught the poet during his delusional wartime years when his mouth was often offensively unfiltered. The music felt like a protest against Pound, frequently trying to drown him out, and with the kind of jangling manic activity of a mind that has melted down.

Abstract painter Agnes Martin (1912-2004), whose spare canvasses could be as simple as a series of horizontal stripes, was heard discussing her artistic identity while finely honed piano chords were sounded one at a time in various parts of the keyboard. Singer Simone (1933-2003) discussed Civil Rights while the wide-ranging piano writing conveyed the vast musical imagination that made her a great singer.

The one world premiere was a work written around a rant by notoriously abrasive performance artist Diamanda Galás. Due to technical problems, the click track that was only to be heard by the pianist was embedded in the actual tape of Galás, and thus was heard by the audience. But you know the old saying in the jazz world: If a mistake happens twice, it then becomes part of the piece. Here, the click track and Galás seemed made for each other.

How good is the music in the overall program? Hard to say in an initial exposure. But the music can be safely described as rather slight much of the time, always engaging, and sometimes fascinating.